NEW CASTLE — There are no more excuses.
After giving the state’s ninth-ranked squad all it could handle, the Mt. Vernon boys basketball team will enter 2015-16 with a heap of self-imposed expectations.
Richmond ended the Marauders’ season 71-61 on Friday in the Class 4A Sectional 9 at New Castle, the veteran defending champs surviving a furious second-half rally.
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An 11-0 blitz by the mostly sophomore and junior Marauders (13-9) tied the semifinal a 49-all, and the Red Devils (23-3) were still on the ropes, up by only one point with two minutes remaining.
“Fought hard to give ourselves a chance and then just didn’t have the desperation we needed late in the game,” Mt. Vernon coach Travis Daugherty said. “Couple loose balls we had to have. Couple shots around the rim we had to make.
“Credit to Richmond. They made those plays.”
Down 49-38 midway through the third quarter, junior guard Miles Wayer sank three 3-pointers to key Mt. Vernon’s game-tying run. The Marauders never took the lead, and trailed 61-60 when Richmond senior Joel Okafor registered a 3-pointer to start the final, game-closing blitz.
Okafor, one of four senior Richmond starters, finished with 17 points. Fellow senior guard Davious Webster notched a game-high 22 points. Antonio Brown, another fourth-year, had 16 points. The trio scored 18 of Richmond’s final 19 points.
“That’s what talented, experienced guys do in big moments,” Daugherty said. “They’re seniors, and they played like seniors.”
The Marauders entered the game determined to keep the veteran and athletic Red Devils from driving to the hoop. Mt. Vernon succeeded in guarding the rim early, so Richmond went long-range. Down 7-4, Richmond quickly burned a timeout to reset, then came out firing. Webster knocked down three 3-pointers during a 12-3 rally that put the defending sectional champs in control.
Combined with a defensive shutdown to open the second quarter — holding the Marauders without a point for more than five minutes — Richmond’s shooting cemented a 38-27 halftime lead.
“They’re obviously very good and, when they make perimeter shots, they’re excellent,” Daugherty said. “But, we felt like we needed to devote our attention to protecting the paint and challenging jump shots.
“Offensively, we just struggled to find a rhythm against their pressure. They’re a hard team to play because … they don’t allow you to go where you want to go.”
Junior forward Michael Thompson had 19 points to lead the Marauders, followed by sophomore Erick Shepherd (15 points), Wayer (14 points) and sophomore Michael Ertel (11). Fifth starter James McCould, a sophomore, will also return next season.
This year’s unit completed a turnaround from last season’s 9-14 campaign. There is room for improvement, Daugherty noted.
“I think we just have to grow up,” he said. “We’ve got a significant level of talent, but we’re going to have to win this game, or a game like it to really accomplish the goals that we have.
“The challenge before those guys coming back is to not only improve as players, but can they develop that desperation to win, in a game like this?”
Notes: Richmond defeated Pendleton Heights 63-44 to win last year’s Sectional 9 title, then lost to Indianapolis Tech 80-55 in the regional semifinal. … Mt. Vernon’s lone seniors, Christian Smith and James Stricker, came off the bench Friday. … Ertel (seven rebounds), McCould (six rebounds) and Shepherd (five rebounds) led the Marauders on the boards. … Connersville (15-10) and Anderson (6-18) squared off in the second semifinal Friday.